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For much of this election cycle, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) has peddled alarmist rhetoric about the impact that free-spending, shadowy conservative groups could have on downballot races this fall.

As Democrats in both the House and Senate enjoy wide financial advantages over their GOP counterparts, Van Hollen especially has raised the specter of outside spending by third party groups to urge his colleagues not only not to become complacent but also to pony up for the party’s cause to expand their House majority.

In particular, Van Hollen and the DCCC have trained their focus on Freedom’s Watch, a conservative 501(c)(4) that is capable of spending unlimited amounts in House and Senate races even though it cannot directly advocate for or against a candidate’s election.

“House Democrats must be prepared to defend ourselves against attacks from Freedom’s Watch and shady right wing groups,” Van Hollen wrote to his colleagues in a memo this month, referring to the group as “our main competition this cycle.”

But at this juncture in the election cycle, Freedom’s Watch has yet to open up its coffers and spend liberally in House races. What’s more, total spending figures available for outside groups show that thus far their influence is skewed heavily toward Senate races — where Democrats this cycle are attempting to get close to the all-important 60 seat margin.

All told, conservative groups have poured almost $23 million into Senate contests so far this cycle.

“Under the radar and without any public scrutiny, Republican special interest groups have opened the floodgates on attack ad spending, and groups that support Democratic candidates aren’t even close to responding in kind,” said Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Democratic Senate campaign strategists appear to be highlighting the conservative groups’ spending at a time when Republicans are feeling more confident about their electoral prospects up and down the ballot.

The No. 1 target by far has been the race for Colorado’s open seat, where Rep. Mark Udall (D) is facing off against former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R).

Almost two dozen outside groups have entered the advertising fray in that contest, with Republican-leaning anti-Udall, pro-Schaffer groups having spent a combined total approaching $10 million, a figure that is increasing daily.

Among the conservative groups that are spending freely in Senate contests are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Associated Builders and Contractors Free Enterprise, America’s Future Fund, Employee Freedom Action Committee and the Club for Growth.

Freedom’s Watch has also spent close to $1 million so far on ads in two races: Colorado and Oregon, where Sen. Gordon Smith (R) is in a tough re-election battle.

But their totals so far pale in comparison to the more than $5.4 million that the Chamber of Commerce and Employee Freedom Action Committee have each spent on Senate contests.

The EFAC — which focuses exclusively on the card check issue for labor unions — has spent in eight states total. The Chamber has spent in nine states while the Club for Growth has put money into the contests in Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico and New Hampshire.

Behind Colorado, conservative groups have spent the most in New Hampshire and Minnesota, with somewhere around $2.5 million being poured into each contest.

Liberal outside groups are also spending in Senate and House races, but not to the degree of their conservative counterparts. National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said conservative groups are becoming more involved in Senate races because liberal groups did earlier in the cycle.

“The Democrat special interest groups have been spending millions against our candidates for months — if anything there has been a leveling of the playing field — so I can see why Democrats would suddenly be upset,” she said.

In the Senate, liberal allied groups have spent more than $3.3 million on races — almost all of it in Colorado. The National Education Association and League of Conservation Voters have been the biggest players in the Centennial State so far on the Democratic side.

The outside group spending comes as new fundraising totals released over the weekend showed Senate Democrats’ cash lead over the GOP diminished in August — a result of Democrats’ increased spending on ads.

The DSCC spent close to $14 million in last month and showed more than $37.6 million in the bank as of Aug. 31. The National Republican Senatorial Committee had $26.8 million in the bank at the end of last month after spending less than $4 million and slightly outraising the DSCC for the period. At the end of July, the DSCC had an $18 million cash on hand advantage.

On the House side, the DCCC ended August with $54 million in the bank after spending $7.5 million in August and raising a little more than $5 million. The National Republican Congressional Committee had not reported its August fundraising figures by press time Friday.

Freedom’s Watch, meanwhile, began to move its focus last week to the House battleground. The group went up with an ad in Alabama’s open 2nd district and it is expected to be on the air in other House districts soon.

Political strategists note that traditionally outside groups to go into Senate races earlier because statewide contests require more money and more firepower in getting a message out. It is easier for third party groups to play later in House races, which often don’t settle out until later in the election cycle anyway.

DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said the committee is only now beginning to see outside groups’ involvement in the House battleground and reiterated that Democrats are ready for the fight.

“Freedom’s Watch has said that they intend to play in both House and Senate races,” she said. “They’ve already started their misleading advertising in House races and we expect much more to come. But they should not expect to attack a Democratic candidate and not be hit back harder.”

At least two liberal-leaning outside groups are expected to play in House contests.

One, Health Care for America Now, just announced that it plans to spend about $500,000 in six House districts and also in the New Hampshire Senate race.

Another, called Patriot Majority, is spending in several targeted races against vulnerable Republican incumbents.

The group has run ads against Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Joe Knollenberg (Mich.), Tim Walberg (Mich.) Jean Schmidt (Ohio) and Steve Chabot (Ohio). It is also running ads in Ohio’s 16th district open seat contest as well as Senate races in New Mexico and New Hampshire.

The NRCC has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission targeting the group’s activities, just as the DCCC lodged both FEC and IRS complaints against Freedom’s Watch when the group began spending heavily in the special elections held earlier this spring.

Nathan L. Gonzales contributed to this report.

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